General Information

Intellectual property (or IP) refers to "creations of the mind." There are four different types of protection: patents for inventions, copyrights for literary and artistic works and symbols, trade secrets for economically valuable business secrets and trademarks for symbols, names, images and designs used in commerce. Each of these categories has specialized laws that encourage creativity and fair competition by providing owners of intellectual property with rights and protections in return for their innovations.

Protecting your intellectual property is incredibly important. In our technology-driven society, intellectual property can even be more valuable to companies than physical property.


Trademarks are words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that allow customers to easily identify and authenticate the source of a service or product. They are also the face of the company and have the potential to be renewed indefinitely.


Used for an unregistered trademark. Registration of a mark is not required, but provides numerous advantages.


Used for an unregistered service mark. A service mark is similar to a trademark, but identifies a service rather than a good.


Used for a registered trademark.

Examples: Disney®, University of Richmond®, Google Goggles™.
Be careful to use the correct symbol. U.S. law prohibits using the registered symbol before the mark is registered, which is called "false marking." You should wait to use the registered trademark symbol (®) until the registration process is complete. Until then, you can use the unregistered trademark symbol (™).


Copyrights protect authors who create original writings, music, and works of art, regardless of whether the works are published. Copyrights protect only physical works and do not protect the ideas behind the works.

While a copyright notice is not required, it informs the public that the work is protected. A copyright notice has three elements:

  1. The © symbol, "Copyright" or "Copr."
  2. The year of first publication
  3. The name of the owner

For example: © 2010 University of Richmond

Examples of copyrighted works: the movie Avatar, the Harry Potter book series, songs by Taylor Swift, and maybe even your personal diary.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets include any information a company keeps secret to give it an advantage over its competitors. The information must have economic value and must be kept secret using a reasonable level of security.

Example: The formula for Coca-Cola® soda.


Patents are granted for inventing new and useful processes, machines, articles of manufacture or compositions of matter. The inventor is granted limited monopoly rights in return for public disclosure of the invention. Getting a patent requires a long and complicated process. However, the patent owner gains the right to stop others from making, using, selling or distributing the patented invention without the owner's permission. This bundle of rights is called a "limited monopoly." In exchange, the patent has to fully describe the invention and the owner's rights end about twenty years after filing the application.

There are three different types of patents. By far most common is the "utility" patent, which covers functional inventions. The rarest type is the plant patent, which covers certain types of newly created plants. Design patents protect non-functional, ornamental or decorative aspects of an object.

For example, Apple's iPhone is covered by many different patents. One of the drawings from design patent number D600,241 is shown above and to the right.

Summary and Comparison Table of Intellectual Property

Subject Matter



Rights Granted

Protection Length


Distinctive words, names, symbols, sounds or colors.

Must be distinctive and used in commerce, but must not be confusingly similar to any other mark.

Protection starts with use, but more is available by registering the mark with the state or federal government.

Right to exclude others from using the mark or one that is confusingly similar.

As long as the mark remains in use.


Authored works including writings, music, art and computer programs.

Must be an original work by the author fixed in a physical medium.

Protection starts when the work is created, but more is available by registering with the federal government.

Right to reproduce, perform, display, distribute or create derivative works.

Generally lasts for the author’s lifetime plus seventy years.

Trade Secret

Any secret business information that provides a competitive advantage.

Must be valuable, must not be generally known and must be kept secret.

There is no registration for trade secrets.

Rights against those that improperly obtain the trade secret.

As long as the information remains secret, valuable, and not generally known.


Machines, articles of manufacture, processes and compositions of matter

Must be new, useful and not obvious.

Federal application process providing full disclosure of the invention is required.

Right to exclude others from making, using, offering to sell or selling the invention.

For a utility patent: twenty years from the filing date.